Ariel Pink has just released his eleventh studio record, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson. To mark the occasion, we’ve invited Ariel Pink to take over HERO online. Over the coming days, watch out for exclusive content and insights into the prolific LA-based musician’s influences, experiences and obsessions.
The takeover kicks off with a special head to head interview between Ariel and friend/musician/writer Momus, where the pair discuss everything from Bowie-esque personas to being transported to the Stone Age.
Momus: Is it good to be Ariel Pink right now?
Ariel Pink: [pauses] Yes. I would say it’s good by my terms, I guess, Ariel Pink terms, yeah.
Ariel: Well it’s a changing thing, so at least for me, things are good right now. I don’t know what else to say about that.
Momus: Do you feel like you’ve made it in the music industry?
Ariel: Yes, that feeling was pretty much quelled when I made it to Click Opera [Momus’ blog]. That was all the fame I needed really, everything else was just a mild comfort, I suppose. It doesn’t take much for me to feel like I made it. Did you make it?
Momus: Did I make it? Well, at 57 I still feel like success is ahead of me, which is kind of nice.
Ariel: But you’ve never felt like you actually made it, that’s an interesting one.
Momus: Now I think that just surviving is making it. I’ve redefined success as survival.
Ariel: Yeah exactly. And if you don’t have to do something while you’re doing that then you’ve made it. That’s pretty much my definition of it.
Momus: We have something in common, I think we probably both started off making music to try to impress girls.
Ariel: Yeah I didn’t even know that I was trying to impress girls for the first 30 or 35 years of my life. I am just starting to realise that and I am finding myself much more vain, checking my breath and my armpits and all that kind of stuff. I feel way more self-conscious nowadays. I was a raggamuffin when I was twenty.
Momus: Impressing girls is a bit like having a patron in the art world; you don’t need an audience of millions, just that one person.
Ariel: Yeah that’s true. But I find that you don’t really need to make it in order to get the girl either. You just have to have an instrument with you when you go to the bar, you know? They like musicians.
Momus: There’s a video where you’re in a wheelchair, going round a shopping centre trying to pick up girls, and they’re being cruel to you.
Ariel: Ah yeah [laughs], that was fun. That was Put Your Number On My Phone. That wasn’t me in the wheelchair, it was my good friend Rich Polysorbate.
Momus: So you’re the good guy, wheeling him around, trying to get sympathy.
Ariel: Yeah I’m his nurse maid, I’m the guy that’s sort of taking him around and I’m trying to get girls using him as a sort of prop. I have him going around with his cell phone like, “Put your number on my phone” [laughs].
Momus: It’s called ‘wing man’, that technique! I have a song about Gregor Samsa — I’m his friend, we go out double-dating and when he’s human he gets the best girls, but as soon as he becomes an insect I start to get them. You have a great sense of playfulness and humour. I think sometimes that’s the best combination, to be cool and yet not afraid to also be ridiculous.
Ariel: Thank you.
Momus: Do you feel like you’re trolling people sometimes, with dangerous takes on topics like disability?
Ariel: Well it’s sort of strange, I can’t take all the credit for the wheelchair thing, that was the director and everybody else’s idea. So I guess these things do tend to rub off on me.
Momus: But you do choose your friends!
Ariel: You do choose your friends but you don’t choose them knowingly do you? It’s a weird thing to say since we’re always improvising but I am one of the least self-conscious people I know. I don’t know how to do theatre or anything like that, I will clam up as soon as someone tells me to act like somebody else or to imagine that I am like this or that. I am actually an extremely honest person, even when I lie.
Momus: Well, here we come to the interesting question of sincerity and irony, and I think that in showbiz they’re often the same thing, because artifice is the reality of that world. When I listen to your records, I hear all these voices, and they’re all different. Like, one backing vocal will be “Sasquatch, out of the way”, then the next will have this totally different feel and timbre. So do you think you might be a little schizoid?
Ariel: [laughs] It is interesting because that word keeps on coming up, not schitzo but schizoid. My aunt who is a therapist might have diagnosed me as that when I was really young and I was like, “Fuck you, what’s your problem?” but I have come to understand that it is something akin to being eccentric.
“I would have liked to have been around maybe during the Neolithic period or maybe the Stone Age to see where things went wrong.”
Momus: Well, I think it’s a real asset for artists, to be able to orchestrate all those voices inside yourself and make a kind of theatre of it.
Ariel: I mean I’m not worried about it. I think you picked up on me pretty early on and at that point I was around 26 and I came from a place of really feeling invisible in the music world. I definitely forged my formative years working on my craft but also, since I was invisible to the world, I was very keen on making a first impression, you know? I was very self-conscious about everything. I was like, “I haven’t made a first impression yet, nobody has ever seen me before, what do I want to present? [In a deep voice] What would happen if I sing like this? Maybe everybody would think I am a big burly man.” And then I would also use photographs that didn’t look like me, I have a weird shapeshifter quality kind of thing, I mean we can’t trust pictures but people tend to do it, so I would think, “OK, this picture combined with this voice. It was like being the Wizard of Oz, as an artist you can really manipulate things. Like the Wizard of Oz, I was exposed, the whole mystery got revealed. All these things came to the fore you know? That’s been my career. It’s been one thing after the other, a very humbling experience of not being able to delivery my art in any way without having a bunch of holes poked into it. It’s been me having to actually realise that there is some other sort of appeal at play that I am not completely in control of. People like me – well a few people like me – for reasons that I’m not in control of, so that loss of control for me is a little bitter sweet, I can’t really own it. If people like my wacky statements and they want me to just be myself I can’t complain about that but that’s not my art, its not what I would consider my strong suit.
Momus: I compared you a few years ago to David Bowie, who started inventing characters because he was shy, and then after about ten years of that dispensed with personae and tried to be himself, arguably with less and less success. But you said you were more of a Buster Poindexter!
Ariel: I think I was being a little bit coy when I said that. I mean Buster Poindexter, not that I don’t like David Johansen and that kind of stuff, I just loved the trajectory of his career, more than anything I think it was really noble. Now that I have heard and really delved into David Bowie’s records I don’t see any artifice in it at all, I actually see the artifice being him really running with the media’s take on his artifice. When I listen to The Man Who Sold the World I don’t see or hear a character per say, maybe he’s pretentious but I don’t see David Bowie not being David Bowie. He was never not being himself, to me. I do get the feeling that he wasn’t in control of… maybe the drag queens invoked this character thing, maybe his costume designers made it that he was not being himself. I have no idea. The point is that, for me, he seems like he was a really sincere artist, the sensitivity was there, he was shy and I’m shy too. I obviously would have liked to have recorded something like the Doldrums. I got into music so that I could indulge fantasy, you know? To create fantasy worlds not to express myself, it was to build an escape.
Momus: I get a real sense, listening to your records, that you love pop music. Every little detail in the arrangements is just such fun, it makes me want to go away and make a pop record.
Ariel: You don’t do that now?
Momus: Yes, I still do that — I just made a song today, in fact — but I tend to avoid pop these days. I’m making music that sounds like madrigals, or ancient Greek music, or Italian or Japanese folk music. But your records make me feel like making pop.
Ariel: We’re both using some sort of Ipad app or something like that. To me it is really limitless… I hate that word, why we are even using the word pop is really frustrating. I feel like when I first started, and I really feel this way Nick, I feel like when I first came out, they were not using the word pop in Wire magazine or any other publications. It was not a word that was used to connote anything in particular, you know what I’m saying? Popular music was something that those magazines avoided. When The White Stripes were coming out, when the Strokes were having their hay day, pop was not a word that they used to describe the things that they were into. I did use the word pop when I was being interview for the first time and it sort of changed the definition. The use of the word pop started to refer to the early eighties with Beach Boys harmonies or something like that. And I was saying it sarcastically as if it was something I was really into. Pop is just a transient term, it’s whatever is popular, but now it connotes a very specific point in time and it actually also connotes this current time. I do feel somewhat responsible for pop being entered into the discussion. I can almost point to the moment when some writer started researching everything that I was saying and then they took the credit and it just sort of spiralled out of control and now I don’t get the credit for it, which is perfectly fine, I don’t want it but I can see what I contributed to the discussion, part of me is very ashamed about that.
Momus: Well, perhaps a better word might be “thrifting”. I get the sense that we both love secondhand clothes, and that maybe we approach music-making the same way, sensing the appeal of old things, neglected or cast-off things?
Ariel: I guess it is sort of that way, I have never bought one item of clothing in my entire life. Really I don’t buy anything, if you come to my apartment you will see a lack of any kind of self. You will think “this place needs a woman” or something like that. It’s not minimal either, I am a little bit of a hoarder.
Momus: So what kind of things do you hoard? Old drum machines?
Ariel: I just collect gifts from people, and art. People leave me their art, friends bring me their art. I put them up on the walls so they don’t get stepped on. I am the worst person in the world to give anything that you want coveted. I’m not even there half the time. I worry for people and their precious things they have entrusted to me.
Momus: How do you record, to a portastudio, or a digital deck, or something?
Ariel: No, I record to computer nowadays. It hasn’t been the portastudio for a while now.
Momus: How do you know when a song is finished?
Ariel: It is never finished, if I had it my way I would be working on the song forever and I wouldn’t release a thing. And I don’t release things. That’s another thing that people don’t understand, it’s the label that releases things. I don’t necessarily need to release anything ever.
Momus: Do some songs take a long time to make? I get the sense that Round and Round was one of those.
Ariel: If I had it my way I would be working on my next record forever. And then eventually finances sort of dry up and then I make the executive decision to turn in whatever I have at that moment. I give myself a month to go back over things I had been working on and then I turn something in. I slap some art on it and then that’s it. It’s somewhat frustrating because I don’t get to satisfy my personal artistic inclination because if I had it my way I would just be working on something until it was perfect and then release it with all the trust and faith and pride in the world to really back it up, but I am always half-assing it.
Right around the time I got noticed – right around the time I appeared on Click Opera – in my mind I really didn’t expect that to happen, I got all this attention. All of a sudden I started to look myself up on Google and see myself in the context of a greater thing. And suddenly it was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and I didn’t even know that I had been operating at a lack my entire life. I didn’t know that it was just that I wanted a bit of love and I wanted acknowledgement, I didn’t even know that that was what I was looking for. At that point I focused on the reality that if I wanted to continue to make music at all I would have to learn how to present it in a live performance and get a natural following that way and maybe a record label will pay attention to me and start to think about signing me. So at that point, because I wasn’t really inspired to do anything, I took the opportunity to focus on practicing and rehearsing a band altogether and managing doing numerous tours and getting a following in a conventional way. And we did it, we finally got onto 4AD and Round and Round was one of a handful of songs on that record that I had written fairly recently, the rest of them I had written years before.
Momus: There’s a video on YouTube of you performing live with your band, and in the middle of a song you suddenly stop singing and just stand there, and everyone in the comments is like: “Is he on drugs? Why isn’t he singing?”
Ariel: Ah yes are you talking about the Coachella Meltdown?
Momus: Yeah, Coachella Meltdown.
Ariel: [laughs] That was a frustrating moment. I definitely don’t like to re-live that but I would say… yeah I was mad about something else and I got upset at the band because they set up in a new configuration, it’s really boring, but my whole point of that action was not that I was unstable or anything, it was not a cry for help or anything. I was hammering the point that I could embarrass the fuck out of them if they didn’t listen to me and that this was not a democracy, this was a police state. And since I don’t really care much about what other people think about me, I am willing to throw the whole thing on the line if they don’t listen to me. So it was more about them and them feeling the pressure that they should listen to me and not make these group decisions without my consent. The whole band thing was something that I needed to go through and it pretty much ended with the second record. Now it’s the solo thing again and now I am recording at home again. This record was the first one that I recorded at home since Before Today. It’s kind of a full circle.
“That’s been my career. It’s been one thing after the other, a very humbling experience of not being able to delivery my art in any way without having a bunch of holes poked into it.”
Momus: So how are you doing these new songs live?
Ariel: Which ones the new ones? I haven’t performed them live yet so right now I am doing the promo tour and as we speak I am speaking to people back at home and I am getting the gear together. I had my first band meeting, we are going to have to rehearse it and we are going to have to figure it out. For me, at this point I don’t really need to perform live for my own finances. I am probably going to do one tour around the States but at this point it doesn’t look like we are going to be doing Europe. I am doing it more as a concession for the label because they put a lot of money behind this.
Momus: I want to end with a fantasy question: if you could live in any historical era — like Chivalric medieval France or something — which would it be, and why?
Ariel: I would have liked to have been around maybe during the Neolithic period or maybe the Stone Age to see where things went wrong. I want to see the first spats between rival humans, ones that were territorial and when food was scare and resources were hoarded. Where we didn’t really know that the other person was actually just one of us.
Momus: That sounds like a very American fantasy, like survivalism, Thoreau, a cabin in the woods, the Unabomber…
Ariel: No it’s much more European because I am trying to get to the back of history. I think it is Freudian if you ask me. It is trying to get into our primitive past and see where we went wrong in a very fundamental way. Had we addressed and known some of the things we know now, we might think differently, if we had acknowledged those things back then. It is an American thing, we definitely want to spread democracy everywhere [laughs].
Momus: When I looked up “Ariel Rosenberg” on Skype, most people with that name live in Tel Aviv. So I wanted to ask about your Jewishness, whether that’s important to you?
Ariel: I have a thousand and one theories on that. I am also British as you can tell. But I have a theory, and it’s not substantiated by any sort of fact. In fact it’s really controversial and I didn’t get it from any books, but it’s just my theory. I believe that everybody is really Jewish by blood. Like if you go back far enough, before there is any genetic record of everybody, the Jews have been migrating and have been tossed out around the world a million times. They have spread their seed but it’s also so easy for Jews to flip and be Christians, like you wait a generation and all it takes is for somebody to believe that they are Christian for their Jewishness to disappear. And because they can’t get it back by claiming their Jewish all of a sudden it really polarises things so that basically people believe that they weren’t Jewish by blood and the whole world is thinking that Jews are this really specific thing. But really, when it comes down to it, if you’re an anti-semite, you are effectively against yourself. It’s a little karmic return I think. So that’s my theory, that everyone is Jewish by blood, most people anyway.
Momus: It sounds like it would make a great Mel Brooks movie!
Ariel Pink’s Dedicated to Bobby James is out now via Mexican Summer.
Stay tuned for more from Ariel Pink’s HERO takeover.