Ariel Pink’s archive is one of the richest and most hyperactive around. From his early, proto-punk experiments to more recent pop-infused glam takes, it’s a driving, spiralling sonic trip through the musician’s own mythologised life path – from burgeoning bedroom-producer to cult icon. However, his latest move has seen him hit the brakes for a moment of reflection, remastering and re-releasing his work created under the moniker Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti between 1999 and 2004 in Los Angeles, while Ariel was in his early twenties. This period includes early lo-fi masterpiece The Doldrums – his senior thesis project at CalArts, presented before leaving in order to concentrate on his music – and its raw predecessor Underground, originally self-released on cassette in 1999 by the 21-year-old undergrad student. Turning his ability to warp the mic on his own oeuvre, these re-releases have unexpectedly come at a time when the whole world has jolted to a halt due to Covid-19, giving many a time to review.
Both in lockdown in an unusually quiet Los Angeles, Ariel connects with longtime friend and collaborator Jennifer Herrema, whose output – from Royal Trux to Black Bananas through RTX – has always been notoriously uncompromising and gloriously wild. On a phone line across LA’s abandoned streets, these two musicians hang onto their hooks as the world spins 360. [This interview took place in April, 2020, soon after lockdown restrictions were announced in LA, the images were taken after restrictions were loosened]
Jennifer Herrema: Hey.
Ariel Pink: How’s it going?
JH: I just gave Bunny [Jennifer’s poodle] a bath in a kiddie pool and now I’m just super stoned. I can only listen to reggae with her around anyway, that’s all she likes, just total background reggae.
AP: Are you healthy?
JH: Yeah I’m healthy. I got really hung up this morning listening to your pre-master copy and then the remastered copy…
JH: Yeah, because I’ve really been tripping out on mastering as the kind of end filter. I put together a greatest hits for Royal Trux and went berserk – I totally fucking mastered the shit out of it. I did it myself with this artificial intelligence algorithm. It was crazy. I listened to yours and it’s not totally crazy but I can super hear the difference and I think that’s great.
AP: That’s cool. It’s not even like a real remastering job to be honest, it’s really just a little EQ readjusting and a little multiband-compressor, but that’s it.
JH: The other one sounds further away in time but this one sounds like it’s up in your face now. I’m all about it, all about mastering.
AP: I consider it to be the most important. When I go through the trouble of producing a record and then [I have to] pass it on to someone else to master, it just seems like you’re giving them the last say in the whole fucking thing.
JH: Oh absolutely. They can make it into something totally different.
AP: They’ll turn it into something totally different to what you wanted.
JH: Oh my god, oh yeah.
AP: It’s their job to do that and it’s just like this weird custom.
JH: I think it’s kind of like fashion, like each season has its colour palette, or whatever, and with music, depending on digital files and where everything is at, they all sort of agree on frequencies and that. You can listen to an 80s record and tell it was produced then.
AP: But mastering is different…
JH: Oh yeah, but I’m saying that they all have the same flavours and formulas for the time. Know what I mean?
AP: I guess so. It’s like an individual thing, it’s the person’s ears. I always thought it was kind of odd to go through the trouble of mixing your record and producing it and getting it just right over the course of weeks and weeks, and then you finally have it and you pay someone to come in and muck up the mix. It seems counterintuitive. But I love the value of that. I always see mastering people as those between the mastering plant and the artist, so they speak the technical language, like 6BB4, you know, the code. It’s this weird language.
JH: Yeah, like how many minutes can you get on one side.
AP: Yeah, silences between songs and things like that, that’s important stuff, but it does feel a little bit redundant in the digital age.
JH: Well exactly. I mean, it feels like now… this is a terrible thing to say to all those people with massive amounts of vinyl and physical gear, but, I’ve been finding these crazy artificial intelligence algorithms and throwing shit in it and being like, “Holy shit, it’s a whole new song.” I’m tripping out on it, I’m into it. Now you don’t have to hand it off to somebody, well unless it’s vinyl, then the grooves still have to be x amount deep and have x amount of minutes, those types of things.
AP: I always consider myself a mastering person, too. In fact, I’ve always considered myself a mastering guy first, mixing guy second, then merch guy third and singer fourth.
“I’ve been finding these crazy artificial intelligence algorithms and throwing shit in it and being like, “Holy shit, it’s a whole new song.” I’m tripping out on it, I’m into it.”
JH: [laughs] You had a bunch of shows that got postponed, so they’re just postponed indefinitely?
AP: No, they have dates now for October, but I don’t know if that’s just some sort of compromise, like, “We’ll let these tickets be valid for these new dates, but then after that…”
JH: They don’t have to start paying the artists out yet [laughs]?
AP: Well they typically did, they probably already did pay the deposit, you know? So it’s probably worthwhile for everyone to just give it the benefit of the doubt for now.
JH: Oh yeah, I agree. This is a very strange situation, it’s very sci-fi. When this thing first happened, I was tripping, it was like, “This thing is so overblown and sci-fi.”
AP: I think the people with halitosis are going to have, like, an evolutionary advantage here [Jennifer laughs], with the social distancing and everything.
JH: Yeah, totally, nasty breath will keep everybody away.
AP: Natural selection in action, you know? [both laugh]
JH: How about we all just let our teeth rot?
AP: We’ll all be wearing masks anyway so it doesn’t really matter, does it?
JH: Nobody will see them. We’ll evolve to not even have teeth…
AP: Or mouths, we’ll just be inhaling fucking powder every day.
JH: Or injecting it. I can’t do needles, they have to use special butterfly needles on me because I’m very petite on the vein side. You can’t see them, there’s nothing to see. How the fuck did I get onto this? At first I was referring to all the Trump Clorox memes that are going around [laughs]. Anyway, I’m not gonna talk politics…
AP: You just did [laughs].
JH: I just George Bush’ed it.
AP: You can’t mention him. I’m just joking. He’s a great painter. It always struck me that Charles Manson would play him really well in a docu-drama. Or George W. Jr would play a great Charles Manson. They have the same like, [goes into Charles Manson voice] “I’m nobody.” They have the same spirit.
“I think the people with halitosis are going to have, like, an evolutionary advantage here [Jennifer laughs], with the social distancing and everything.”
JH: [laughs] I’m totally seeing the relationship. Did you say that you’ve listened to the new Fiona Apple record?
AP: I did a cursory listen to the record because it got the highest score ever on Pitchfork.
JH: But it can only go up to ten [laughs]?
AP: Yeah, but they barely give any tens, it’s exceedingly rare, I think… the Pitchfork ten, like what’s that about?
JH: Mediocrity is what gets you a ten [laughs].
AP: But it’s something else, it’s political. Sorry, I hate to get all political again but, it’s a statement.
JH: Yeah these things totally happen. My thing is, kind of like a cartoon I’m walking around with question mark bubbles over my head half the time. I’m like, “What the fuck is going on?” [laughs] I choose not to take anything too seriously or I’d just be bummed as fuck all the time.
AP: Oh yeah, exactly. It really is just people’s opinions. But also it’s like, we aren’t rating the rating, it doesn’t get a grade.
JH: Exactly, opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one. And everybody shares them now.
AP: Absolutely, and what sounds like a very good review to some people might actually be the exact opposite to others.
JH: Totally. As a kid you see those glossy magazines at the 7-Eleven and you think “Eurghh” – at least I did – and maybe if you see a bad review inside, that’s the coolest thing in there. As a kid, that was my thinking.
AP: That was my thinking too and I think that’s actually a relic from another era when you could get a bad review and it wouldn’t matter. Those were like mad out-there records.
“…opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one. And everybody shares them now. “
JH: Big time. It was relevant because there were some parameters for sharing so it wasn’t infinite, whereas now sharing is infinite. It’s in the crazy house, mirror after mirror. To the point where maximum saturation is… none of it means anything at all [laughs].
AP: It’s true, like when U2 put themselves on your iPhone. Like how did they gauge whether that was a success or not? Did they look at the numbers of people actually listening to it?
JH: But once it’s downloaded…
AP: Nobody’s gonna download it.
JH: Wasn’t it already downloaded?
AP: I think it was available or something, I can’t remember. But any kind of tracking of people who pressed play or whatever and streamed it for five seconds would give you a false sense of pride, I suppose. Like, “Yeah, we got one trillion listens…” Jennifer: [laughs] And we made ten dollars. Ariel: [laughs] “We got lots of previews, guys!”
JH: I wonder how much that marketing option cost, it wasn’t free [laughs].
AP: It might have been free, what if they were trying to do something new and they thought of this…
JH: Well perhaps with U2 that’d be the case.
AP: “Hey guys, we have a great idea! Fuck publicity, fuck any of that stuff, we’re not gonna release our music in record stores, let’s bypass all that and just have it included in the phone plan.”
JH: [laughs] “And if you don’t opt-out, you’re gonna be charged for it every month.”
AP: [laughs] Brilliant plan.
JH: You know that Fortnite game? I don’t play video games, they create a lot of stress for me. I don’t find them relaxing or fun, I find them frazzling and stressful. But I like looking at the graphics and not participating, you know? And inside the Fortnite world, I watched Travis Scott do a twenty-minute concert on that virtual stage. So like all the gamers and the cross-overs were watching, there were like twelve million or something. It’s interesting, but it’s a totally different art form. It’s so multimedia.
AP: Was it broadcast live or pre-recorded?
JH: I’m not sure, from what I saw it was streamed in real-time. That’s what people are seeing, but it’s all animated, so I don’t know if it was simultaneous animation or perhaps it’d been done prior. We don’t even have 5G yet, so I don’t think they could even manage simultaneously turning a concert into an animated thing in real-time.
AP: We still can’t even get like GPS properly, it’s always delayed, and if you call long distance there’s still a delay. We haven’t mastered that yet.
JH: 5G is coming though. During the Kobe [Bryant] tribute at the Staples Center, someone had their phone up and was streaming live, and they even do it on TV with newscasters and it glitches up all the time. Like, we aren’t there yet. But I think 5G is going to be the big turnaround. I think we’re gonna spend a bunch of money on infrastructure to get up to par on that.
AP: You think that Bluetooth will be like, right behind it?
JH: Like, lightning-fast?
AP: Lightning fast and never a glitch. People are so used to hearing everything cut up and glitched because of loading and bad connection, I can’t believe that we took a step back for as long as we have.
JH: I have a lot of high hopes for 5G. But evidently there’s like a political movement against it…
AP: Oh yeah, they say it’s cancerous, right?
JH: Right. But then hasn’t everything been cancerous? Radio, cars?
AP: I’m not one of them, I welcome 5G.
JH: That’s how we will evolve as humans. We’ll take on the perils of the new world and our bodies will adapt to it over time. We’re the first frontier [laughs].
AP: We need to pump it into our brains to get the right antidote.
JH: Precisely. So perhaps you’re gonna do the shows in October, and it was the East Coast wasn’t it?
AP: Yeah, it was New York and Washington D.C. and also a festival in Florida – I’m curious about that one.
JH: That sounds cool. I have much love for Florida in general, especially Jacksonville and Miami. They’ve got so many storms and things – it’s terrifying during certain times of the year.
AP: But there’s no better place than LA, that goes without saying.
JH: Oh that’s true. It really is true. It’s kind of ridiculous how fucking nice it is.
AP: Especially now…
JH: It’s empty.
AP: What’ve you got lined up next?
JH: It’s the Black Bananas stuff that I was telling you about. I chatted to Matthew Johnson [co-founder of Fat Possum records] yesterday. We’ve finished the EP, it’s like 25 minutes, and we’re gonna release it through Fat Possum, but they’re gonna figure out how to do it during this moment. I sent you some of the stuff we were doing live, but we’ve added some other stuff on top of it. The idea is, that’s what eventually went into this EP, and I want you to do a remix on what we were talking about.
AP: Yeah, totally.
JH: So it’d kinda be like Pink Stuff [a 2019 EP of Royal Trux tracks remixed by Ariel Pink], you know?
AP: Love that. Any time, man. Any excuse to go down to Costa Mesa [where Jennifer’s studio is] is worth it.
JH: Oh fuck yeah, dude. Yeah Brian [McKinley, Royal Trux and Black Bananas bassist] is stuck up…
AP: He’s got a kid now, right?
JH: Yeah, well even beyond that. The car he has, the Buick, it broke and he can’t figure out what car he can get or whatever.
AP: I’m getting a car pretty soon, my mom’s bestowing her car to me.
JH: Cars are awesome. I didn’t learn how to drive until 1995 but it was the best thing. Keep me updated with your schedule.
AP: Like aside from those shows I have literally nothing, my only plan is to keep my schedule open. That’s my goal.
JH: And not get the Corona.
AP: That goes without saying, I definitely don’t want the Corona.
JH: Dude, there’s this kid… that’s another thing, the stuff that makes the national news now might as well be America’s funniest home videos. There’s this kid whose name is Corona, he’s like six years old and getting bullied and shit like that. And Tom Hanks [laughs], because he had Corona he wrote this kid a cheer up letter. Like this is the news [laughs].
AP: I know, I know. I wonder if his nickname is Covid-19? Corona is a pretty cool name if you think about it.
JH: Yeah, but it’s a little bit wrecked now [laughs]. He was getting very much bullied and I’m sorry, that’s terrible, but I also found it completely hilarious.
AP: I don’t think we’re gonna end bullying any time soon, that seems to be something kids excel at, and they’ll find nicknames anyway.
JH: Kids gotta learn early how to fight back [laughs].
AP: Kids should learn that they’ll get their revenge in adulthood, if it’s any consolation. All the jocks and popular kids will peak in high school then get each other pregnant and get bogged down straight after high school in angst, meanwhile all the b-level, not popular kids will spend their next twenty years looking good, in shape, single. The real goal is to peak when you’re like 80.
JH: Totally, always moving forward [laughs].
Feature originally published in HERO 24.