“I know I’ve left my mark already,” says Ariel Pink. “I know when somebody’s heard my music. I can hear it in their music.”
The Los Angeles musician, whose real name is Ariel Rosenberg, is talking about the dozen or more Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti albums he released in the 2000s and how their merger of exquisitely melodic pop with reverb-hazy lo-fi spawned an entire genre, chillwave. Its dreamy legion includes genuine talents like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi, along with lesser outfits beyond counting.
Ariel confesses he doesn’t really like any of his chill-dren but says that it’s nonetheless been “fascinating to watch the ripples, left by having made an impression, make their way around the world a few times.” He adds that it’s “a million times more pervasive” for Animal Collective, the Pitchfork-universe gods who gave him his first big break when they rereleased early ultra-limited edition Haunted Graffiti cassettes and CD-Rs such as The Doldrums and Worn Copy as proper CDs via their label Paw Tracks. “To a much lesser degree, it’s happened with me. But you know, I’m really just grateful that anybody cares at all five years after the fact.” That’s a reference to his virtual disappearance from the scene for several years following the final Paw Tracks rerelease House Arrest in 2006. “I felt like I had my fifteen minutes of fame. It came and went and I didn’t deserve a second chance.”
While the chillwave swarm hatched in his absence, Ariel was undergoing a difficult transition: from a one-man band making albums in his living room to a proper rock group recording in a studio under the guidance of a producer, and from a do-it-yourself underground icon-hood in the intimate milieu of small labels run by his friends to having a contract with a major-league record label, 4AD (part of the independent-label conglomerate Beggars Banquet). The result was last year’s triumphant Before Today, widely rated as one of 2010′s best albums. In January this year Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti even appeared on mainstream TV in America, performing Before Today’s stand-out track “Round and Round” on the NBC chat show Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
It’s been a long, strange journey for a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who started out making records at art school in Los Angeles during the late Nineties. “I was just doing music the whole time I was there, using it as essentially my concept art. At my opening exhibition, I sold The Doldrums–I had a kiosk and I sold burned CDs. I was extremely rebellious as far as the art department was concerned. An affront to them.”
Growing up in affluent Beverley Hills, Ariel had been encouraged to become a visual artist. “From the age of three I was an extremely skilled craftsman. Since a little kid, my parents were like ‘Oh my God, you’re like a Picasso’. They thought I was going to go into graphic design or something. That skill got me into art school, but I wasn’t interested in art per se. And art school turned me off it completely. Artists are some of the most sociopathic people. That world is just rife with creeps. And the way that the art market developed, it killed off any room for anything other than conceptual art. It all became about “is it art, or is it not art: that is the question”. And if you don’t engage in that question, then you’re not really going to have a career. Which is just bullshit to me. I always thought good art was like record covers. Put a name on any kind of image and make a great record cover: that’s good art to me.”
In those long before Before Today days, Ariel worked in isolation, laying down all the instrumental parts of his music onto a 8-track mixer in his apartment and, amazingly, simulating drums using mouth-noises. What resulted seemed to be a semi-conscious attempt to recreate the primal scene of the child falling in love with pop for the first time with an ear cupped to an imperfectly-tuned transistor. This illusion was created partly by Ariel’s artfully lo-fi production, out of focus and streaked by sudden leakages of colour-saturated noise, and partly by his stylistic disjointedness, the way incongruous melodies sometimes seemed to jut into a song like interference from another station’s signal. Ariel describes his music as “retro-licious”.
There’s definitely an element of pastiche: an obsessive fan-scholar who worked for a long period as a clerk in a record store, he has the rock formalist’s love of songcraft and period production styles. One minute he’s channeling Hall & Oates, the next it’s Blue Oyster Cult, or Men Without Hats, or The Police circa Synchronicity… But in his early music, Pink’s retro-pastiche tendencies were offset by a psychedelic urge to shatter form with kaleidoscopic chaos. So alongside gorgeous tunes like “For Kate I Wait” and “Strange Fires”, there’s eerie ambient lagoons like “Foilly Foibles/Gold”, a cornucopia of distressed and irradiated texture-tones. Somewhere between these poles lie epic multi-part songs like “Trepanated Earth” or shimmering, rolling dreamscapes like “The Ballad of Bobby Pyn.”
Although Before Today tidied up the loose ends and stripped away much of the trademark echo-haze, it was the logical extension of what Ariel started with those early albums. “I like to do things that I like, and what I like is something that I don’t hear, ” he says, talking about contemporary radio. “I see it as preserving something that has died. Something that’s going extinct. And just saying, ‘no!’ That’s all it is for me, as a music lover. ” But while occasional songs on Before Today remind you of particular artists–Fleetwood Mac on “Can’t Hear My Eyes”, Public Image Ltd with “Revolution’s A Lie”–mostly the echoes are less specific. His music is a puree of jumbled up eras, reflecting the fact that Ariel, who was born in 1978, belongs to the post-historical generation, shaped by the endless shuffle-mode of VH1 and classic rock radio, and, more recently, iPod and YouTube. “We have no concept of time,” he says.
His generation increasingly has no concept of space either, their curiosity about and hunger for fresh musical stimuli bypassing geographical borders and cultural boundaries. One of the most beguiling tracks on Before Today is the fusion-flavored instrumental “Reminiscences”. It is effectively a cover, or perhaps an interpretation, of “Liben Sitarochew”, an Ethiopian “golden oldie” sung by pop singers Yeshimebet Dubale and Kenede Mengesha. According to Ariel, the most famous song-form in Ethiopoia is tizita, “the song of nostalgia and remembrances”. Hence the title “Reminiscences”.
Although the Ethiopiques series of compilations of Sixties and Seventies Ethiopian/Eritrean rhythm-and-blues and funk has been a long-time favourite with hipsters and critics, Ariel’s particular passion is for the underground pop made during the Derg dictatorship of the 1980s. He explains that Los Angeles is, “the perfect hub” for this stuff because it has “a little Ethiopia. Go to the Mercato area and you can buy the cassette tapes that were dubbed by the musicians themselves during the time records were illegalized in Ethiopia.” Many of these musicians are the same ones you can hear on Ethiopiques, “but by the Eighties they’d become recording artists rather than a live thing. They were forced to do these recordings in the middle of the night, and they’d dub the tapes and disseminate them. By the Eighties and into the early Nineties it’s become this futuristic kind of funk, spacy and totally evocative, with really jazzed out, echoed-out trumpets and Simmons electronic drums. It’s the most glorious era of music that hasn’t even had its own blog yet. Although there is a lot of stuff on YouTube, because these singers did videos that would get shown on ETV, which was almost like a public access show.” You can also find these “oldies” onDiretube, the Ethiopian equivalent to YouTube.
Ariel first encountered Derg-era Ethio-pop through the cosmopolitan mix of Los Angeles rather than online. But the way it has crept into his palette of influences to nestle alongside Sixties psych, Seventies soft-rock, and Eighties New Wave, parallels the way that the post-Internet generation are growing up in a world-of-sound as post-geographical as it is post-historical. YouTube in particular, and the Internet in general, is a kind of archive-universe that keeps expanding as more and more culture-stuff gets stuffed into it: imagery and information, audio and video, that arrives from every corner of the globe and every crevice of our past, and increasingly from the pasts of all those foreign cultures as well.
Hence the profusion of blogs like Anywhere Else But Here Today… , Brain Goreng, Holy Warbles, Sea Never Dry , Ghost Capital, and many, many more. Then there’s all the labels that are increasingly becoming crate-diggers san frontieres : Finders Keepers, Cherrystones, Secret Stash, Soundway Records, Strut, Honest Jon’s, Stone’s Throw, Dust-To-Digital, et al. These blogs and labels are chasing down every imaginable kind of retro-exotica, from ethnological field recordings, to pop and showbiz (every nation has its domestic equivalent to schmaltz, schlager, variety) to hip sounds (South African disco & house! Indonesian hard rock! Angolan funk! Hawaian psychedelia!), in many cases sourced direct from the original cassettes or well-worn vinyl. “I’ve been on a different musical kick lately,” says Ariel, after talking at length about Ethiopian pop. “I’ve been so into the Communist stuff. All the Russian pop stuff.”
What saves Ariel’s music from just being record collection rock, mere music-about-music, is the real-life emotion that bursts through in his best songs, from the tremulous yearning of “Strange Skies” to the loneliness of “Life In L.A.” There’s darkness too, an almost exultantly bleak view of the world-that comes out in songs like “Trepanated Earth” (“the human race is a pile of dogshit”, he spits at the start) and “Revolution’s A Lie”, which was originally titled “Evolution’s A Lie”. “It’s designed to collapse, it’s all going to shit”, he says, on the subject of Human Civilisation, adding with a laugh, “And that’s for the good.”
And what about music? Does it have any future? Ariel’s music, so often praised by fans and critical admirers in terms of “ghost transmissions from a long-lost radio utopia” and similar metaphors, does seem dependent on mining the memory-seam of Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties rock. But just like the West’s oil addiction, surely Western pop’s addiction to its own past will ultimately causes all these veins of inspiration to collapse, run dry? Whither next for fresh (re)sources of retrolicious-ness?
“The Nineties will never come back,” Ariel insists. “Grunge is not coming back.” He makes a vomiting, gagging sound to evoke the decade, then elaborates: “There was a total negative space, in music and quality, between Nirvana and The Strokes. When the Strokes came around, I couldn’t believe it, I was like, ‘dude, I have a fucking chance: they’re playing guitars!”
Firmly convinced that there’s “nothing revivable” or worth excavating from the Nineties, Ariel believes that music will “stay around the 70s and 80s, kind of going back and forth, probably forever.” But he also envisages “recording becoming completely obsolete in the next five or six years and live performance becoming the only future for a band or musical act of any kind. People’s attention spans are going to shrink to such a degree that the live performance thing is going to be the most socially viable thing. It’ll be more about the social act of going to the show. It could be innovative music, or just party music, but it’ll happen in a live setting. And maybe that’s a good thing, a natural out growth of a post-materialist society. It shouldn’t be about products.” He says that in Ethiopia, “there are no stars. You’re just a musician–nothing too extraordinary.”
But doesn’t Ariel want to be star? He seems to have a healthy ego. “I’m an attention hog,” he admits. “I’d like to be president if possible. Way down the road. Maybe four years. I’d try a whole bunch of things. Then I wouldn’t even go to jail if they don’t work out.”
Los Angeles Times, June 6th 2010
by Simon Reynolds
Ariel Pink seems quintessentially L.A. He's lived virtually his entire life in Los Angeles and can't imagine living anywhere else. He's written songs with titles like "Beverly Kills" and "Life in L.A.," and echoes of the city's musical past reverberate across his albums, from the Byrds and Love to Fleetwood Mac and the Germs' Darby Crash.
Yet the frontman-leader of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti says that, compared with the cult love he gets elsewhere, "I'm nothing in L.A. It's been at the same level for the last 10 years."
Maybe that's why Pink, who lives in Highland Park, is talking up his new record "Before Today" as his "East Coast album." He describes the cover as "Ramones-ish": It's a painting of Pink and band mates leaning against what could be a flophouse or derelict burlesque theater in a rundown outer borough of New York.
In Manhattan the day before playing a May 4 concert, Pink is strolling along a post-industrial landmark in the formerly seedy meatpacking district: the High Line, a disused railroad viaduct recently converted into a long, narrow above-ground park. A small, hunched figure who gives off a vague aura of spiritual malnourishment, he's wearing a gray-hooded jacket, an orange-and-blue-striped shirt with a torn neckline, and clogs.
Pink, whose real name is Ariel Rosenberg, is physically hungry too. He forgot breakfast, so the next destination is a Thai fast-food joint in nearby Chelsea Market. Gobbling noodles, he discusses the strange twists and turns of his career. Its unusual trajectory mirrors the paradoxical qualities of his music and the contradictions of his personality, where fragility and neediness battle it out with self-grandeur and control-freakishness. At one point during the making of "Before Today," in fact, he quit his own band.
All this comes through in the music's combination of the swagger and epic drama of classic radio rock with the passive-aggressive vulnerability and petulance of bands like the Cure (Pink's favorite as a Goth-loving teenager). Like many of his indie-rock peers, Pink has worked as a record-store clerk and there's an aspect to his songs that is pure pastiche. But cutting through the stylization and the arch vocals is the ache of real pain and longing, the sting of a spite and cynicism that has roots in a troubled childhood.
Pink's signature sound — the collision of exquisitely melodic song craft influenced by '80s mainstream pop with the loose ends and reverb-haze of lo-fi indie — has been forged widely in the last several years. He's the godfather of the blog-buzz propelled genre known as chillwave, whose dreamy legion includes Neon Indian, Tory y Moi, Tape Deck Mountain, Washed Out, and dozens more. "I know I've left my mark already," Pink says, proudly. "I know when somebody's heard my music. I can hear it in their music."
Then he admits he doesn't really like any of the bands he's influenced, apart from a few that involve his friends and associates, including L.A.-based Nite Jewel (Ramona Gonzalez, the wife of his former guitarist Cole Marsden Greif-Neill).
Depending on how you calculate, "Before Today" is Pink's ninth album or his 24th. The Haunted Graffiti discography is a chaotic sprawl of ultra-limited-edition cassette, CD-R and vinyl releases, confused further by rereleases and reconfigurations of earlier material. But Pink insists that "Before Today" is "the first album." Not only is it his debut for a big-deal label (4AD), it's "the first record I've made with any kind of thought or consciousness that I have an audience." He and his band will begin a national tour at the Echoplex in Echo Park on July 9.
Pink's cult stature arrived quickly mid-decade when he was discovered by Animal Collective, which rereleased "The Doldrums," followed by "Worn Copy" and "House Arrest," on its fledgling label Paw Tracks. But not only were these rereleases of records Pink had put out a few years earlier on tiny labels operated by friends but the actual material had been recorded as far back as the late '90s. Until now, virtually everything he has released was created before November 2004.
What's he been doing these last five years then? Eking out a living by touring and releasing limited-editions collations of the old material, he says, while "trying to get a record deal. I didn't want to make any new music until I got paid for it."
Everything Pink made before "Before Today" was done solo. He operated as a one-man band, laying down all the instrumental parts onto an 8-track mixer in his apartment and, amazingly, simulating drums using mouth-noises, human beat-box style. "Before Today" represents a total reversal of this modus operandi: Pink worked with a proper band, in a professional recording studio, under the direction of a producer.
The transition was "fraught with complications from Day 1," he says. Bassist Tim Koh, longest-serving member of the group and Pink's friend since he put out "Worn Copy" on his own micro-label Rhystop, sounds fatigued as he describes the "really long process. We went through tons of people. Ariel quit, and I quit at one point. And Cole our guitarist quit but never came back. It got a little … difficult."
Pink describes it as "a learning experience." What he learned, though, wasn't how to get along with others but that "ultimately I do have absolute control. I had to basically take control of my band. Stop calling it a band.... I got very good at telling people what to do, essentially."
All that tension and unpleasantness has paid off handsomely. "Before Today" strips away a lot of the echo-laden wooze that swathed Pink's earlier music. What emerges, glistening and majestic like a yacht through fog, often sounds like chart material. The only catch is that these would be radio smashes in 1986, or 1978, or whichever year that a particular song refers to stylistically. You can't imagine anything on the record making a dent on today's radioscape.
The title "Before Today" speaks to Pink's alienation from contemporary music. "Oh, they're all retro-licious, man," he quips of his songs. "My music is pure retro." "Before Today" is the logical extension of what Pink began with "The Doldrums" and "Worn Copy," where tracks such as "Among Dreams" and "Trepanated Earth" felt like ghost transmissions from a long-lost radio utopia. "I see it as preserving something that has died. Something that's going extinct. And just saying, 'no!' That's all it is for me, as a music lover. I like to do things that I like. And what I like is something that I don't hear."
What's odd about Ariel Pink is that the lo-fi, mumbly-vocal DIY tradition that his early music belonged to was originally vehemently opposed to the slick, big-budget AOR and '80s rock 'n' soul that he's so inspired by. Hall & Oates are a perennial touchstone, while on "Before Today" you can hear Blue Oyster Cult circa "Don't Fear the Reaper" in "Butt-house Blondies" and the Police circa "Every Breath You Take" in "Round and Round."
More often, though, the echoes are less specific, his music like a puree of jumbled-up eras. Born in 1978, Pink belongs to the post-historical generation, shaped by the endless shuffle-mode of VH1 and classic rock radio and more recently iPod and YouTube. "We have no concept of time," he says, talking of how some people in his generation "who like '60s music, they live there forever."
With so much contemporary music, its primary emotion is directed toward other, earlier music. Pink is a scholar of the history of rock production, and his music occasionally succumbs to formalist whimsy. But his best songs are fueled by real-life emotion: the tremulous yearning of "Strange Skies," the romantic uncertainty of "Round and Round." There's darkness too, an almost exultantly bleak view of the world.
Pink's parents divorced when he was 2. There was child therapy and a difficult transition from a Jewish private school to a public junior high in Beverly Hills. His response to being "made fun of a lot, [because] I was very small" was to get into death metal. "You could say I was the equivalent of a Columbine kid, except this was before Columbine."
Being sent to Mexico for a while "cheered me up a bit" and he upgraded from death metal to Goth. In the late '90s, he attended CalArts, where he was "extremely rebellious, an affront to the art department." At the end-of-semester exhibition in 1999, Ariel's contribution was a kiosk at which he sold burned CD-Rs of "The Doldrums." "I was using music as my concept art. I was just doing music the whole time I was there."
Turbulence continued well into the 2000s, with a chaotic domestic situation and a lifestyle whose flavor is caught in the "House Arrest" anthem "Getting High in the Morning." Then, just as his career took off with the rerelease of "The Doldrums," a beloved sister suffered a terrible car crash, leaving her in a permanent vegetative state.
Perhaps because he has two sisters and because of his parents' divorce, Pink seems to identify with womankind. He has an androgynous quality reminiscent of glam icon Marc Bolan and plays with gender in his songs. Throughout the interview he threads his fingers through his long, fine hair in a nervous, girlish way. In the video for the killer tune "For Kate I Wait" from "The Doldrums," he wears a dress.
And "Before Today's" "Menopause Man" is a transgender anthem whose lyrics beseech "make me maternal, fertile woman" and vow "I'm changing today/ I'm a lady from today." Pink says, "I feel like I'm neither a girl nor a boy. I don't feel like a man. I look in the mirror sometimes and think, 'Wow, you're a beautiful woman.'" He smiles wryly and adds, "Of course, it's very male to think like that."