Ariel Pink on Inspiration, Memory, and His Sideways Path of Experimental Music
It’s no secret that the work of Ariel Pink is of the utmost perpetual interest to us here at Weirdo Music Forever. 2017 has already been especially fruitful for Ariel, including the 2017 collaborative Myths 002 EP (alongside Weyes Blood), his work with Sensations Fix, and a single (“Another Weekend”) from his upcoming album on Mexican Summer, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson. With a September 15 release date for the new album and a North American tour on the horizon, Ariel graciously set aside time to speak with us earlier this week, covering diverse topics that included artistic inspiration, collective human experience, his dedication to experimental music, and even the soon-to-appear Graffiti Pail Kids.
Bobby Weirdo: Over the years, you’ve brought great music that many people aren't familiar with to the forefront, introducing artists like R. Stevie Moore, Doug Hream Blunt, Gary Wilson, Jerry Solomon, and others to a wider audience. I'm curious about what motivates you to do that.
Ariel Pink: I think it’s the most evident truth out there that the best musicians tend to be more invisible than most musicians. It seems to be an inverse law. When I was younger, it used to boggle my mind that the more obscure the music was, the more I was taken with it. Maybe that was an arbitrary or juvenile conclusion that I came to, but it seemed that there are so many great musicians out there, and there is a lack of visibility in general for them, which is sort of what I love about it. These people and musicians are legends just getting on with life, being self-actualized, working musicians. They’re active, and not necessarily going for anything too fame-oriented. They’re just passing through, and that was inspiring to me when I was younger.
In a weird way, I’ll uproot the law of the universe and shine light on these people. Insofar as far as I get any attention, I feel it’s only justified for me to shine a light on what’s inspired me, crawl out of my bedroom, and make a name for myself.
BW: Speaking of crawling out of your bedroom, I wanted to ask about the catch-22 of your influences and your earlier home recordings. Were you interested in those early home recorders because you also happened to be recording music that way, or did you initially start home recording because of the influence those artists had on you?
AP: With Stevie [Moore] being the exception, I never thought about any of the artists that I listened to - or myself - as being defined by home recording. That was not a term, genre, or thought in my mind. Not even cassette music. I know there have been semi-political movements and micro-genres in the annals of post-punk where they define themselves by home taping and fetishize it, but to me all that stuff was under a different, broad umbrella. I just thought of it as experimental music, and being experimental, those artists could take all sorts of risks without having any commercial restraints. But at the same time you could indulge in great melody and pop sensibility if the artist was capable of bringing those realities to life in the atmosphere they produced. To me, it was all about sounds, and it didn’t matter if you were in a studio or in a bedroom. The bedroom didn’t matter to me anyway.
In my dad’s garage, when I was in high school, I had what I called “The Lab”. It wasn’t a studio by any stretch of the imagination. I got some cheese graters, things I could just bang together, and a mini tape recorder, and I just recorded stuff live. It was sub-sub-home recording, but I was just excited to participate. I would dream I was doing something like John Cage. It may as well have been a funded, musical cathedral. There wasn’t any sense that I was limited by the bedroom. I didn’t want to convey the bedroom; I wanted to convey the funeral in an aircraft.
BW: There’s currently a quote on the Mexican Summer website about you wanting “to redefine the musical lexicon,” and it further reads, “this mission remains mine to this day.” What does “redefining the musical lexicon” mean for you?
AP: Going back to all the music I like, I think of it as experimental music. I thought of myself early on as an avant-garde composer, and whether I was or wasn’t is beside the point. I felt like the experimental mission was taken up and carried through a certain time more than others [in history], and there was a shift at one point where it became almost passé. But I consider artists like Hall & Oates and Todd Rundgren experimental. What a lot of people consider to be straight-up pop music and radio fodder, I thought of as being technologically experimental. In a broad way, Hall & Oates wasn’t just soul music - it was almost electronic and experimental, and more in line with David Bowie, Kraftwerk, and things like that.
There was a point, though, when the music really lost the collective drive to see itself as an experimental thing, and I think that was a point of departure in the linear, unraveling chronology of music. I felt like I needed to re-pose the question. The mission hasn’t been abandoned, and we still haven’t addressed and sought the end of the experimental question. We have to investigate everything, and we can’t just forget that it ever existed as a pursuit. I wanted to remind the world that it seemed to be a thread running all the way back through classical music and time immemorial. It’s part of the inventive drive of the Western canon. That’s all grandiose and highfalutin, but that’s what I was thinking at the time.
BW: Can you identity a particular point in time when that experimental thread in music disappeared?
AP: I believe it’s a forgotten part of [the music] – an abandoned quality. There were experimental musicians operating in all genres of past times. The experimental aspect is omnipresent throughout the process, but there’s a mindset that raises the questions and the awareness of experimental practice.
For me, it’s empowering when I think of things in experimental terms, because it makes me feel like I’m mining new territory no matter what I do, and it also frees me up from having to be disappointed with my own shortcomings. It’s a way of investigating - not knowing necessarily where I'm going, whether something’s good or not, or if I'm achieving the goal. [Instead], I'm just sort of trying it out.
BW: There was a conversation you had with Panda Bear a couple years ago where you addressed what we as humans can achieve in the realm of language within the span of one lifetime., and more recently a conversation you had with Greg Gutfeld, where you touched on the idea of consciousness, and how that might relate to music.
AP: I can’t remember the exact contexts, but there are the questions about the qualities of music that cast a spell on us, what makes music so effective, and why it continues to dazzle us. It gets to your emotions before language does, and it deals with primitive drives.
The auditory sense is one of the first senses that gets to us when we’re in the womb, prior to us even being aware of it. So sound actively shapes a portion of our brain. I like to think that while the eyes take up the majority of space in our brains once we’re out of the womb, the auditory stuff has already been inscribed on the inside. It's taking up a fair amount of space, and probably informing how we create and stamp things into the framework of memory.
That’s getting deep into the rabbit hole of theory of some sort, but what’s interesting to me is the way that we can download all this information and years of history. It gets condensed and re-transmitted generation after generation, beyond one lifetime and across centuries and millennia. It adds up to a lexicon, library, or archive of human experiences.
I’m sure recordings have an extremely titillating effect on that function of our brain. If you are inclined to think that way, you could just cram your mind with everything that’s been historically written, and create a giant pantheon of human history and experience. That could be acquired in a short time. When you’re young and like a sponge, you’re transmitting all this stuff, and it’s all just superfluous information that we pass along through words and ideas. Those things survive us, and last longer than any experience we might have in our lifetime. It’s amazing that a piece of paper with somebody’s writing on it can outlive us.
BW: With your visual art, are you coming from the same place you inhabit with your music, or do you have to access a different place?
AP: With my drawings? I think it’s a fairly unconscious process for me because I really find myself at a loss for what to draw. It’s hard for me to pick an object, study, theme, starting point, or anything like that. In the past, it was more focused. I would set out to draw a face, or whatever, but now I use it almost like a furnace that I feed with coal. As I’m speaking with you right now, I’m either pacing or doodling, without me knowing what I’m doodling. Things just sort of come out, and maybe I’ll take the time to delve in and take those unconscious moves, focus on the detail, get tight with my grip on the pen or pencil, go in micro, dig in deep, and then come out with these mosaics and sculpture-like things that float around the peripheries of my bank bills and all sorts of other important documents. I never take a blank note pad and let it flow; that’s too intentional. I have to do it on a disposable piece of paper like the back of a bill, or something that will trick me into thinking that I’m not doing art.
BW: A while back, I heard you and Charles having a discussion that may have been the birth of the Graffiti Pail Kids. I think I’ve seen one of these surface online for Bobby Jameson.
AP: There’s a whole series coming up, and in fact you’re in there too. I’ve devised a baseball card hall of fame, dividing the cards into all-stars, MVPs….
BW: From the music scene?
AP: Both. Anybody under the “genius” banner is going to be non-music-related, or from some other medium closely related to what I do. So you’re going to be in that section. There’s the hall of fame, which is probably what Bobby Jameson is going to be in. There are also MVPs, which are “most valuable players," and will be Haunted Graffiti members past and present. And there are general all-stars, which are colleagues and like-minded allies and friends. There are going to be stats and discographies on the back [of the cards].
BW: I’ve pronounced your name "Ariel" [said with long “A”] in the past, but the correct pronunciation is Ariel [ɛəɹiəl/"aerial"], right?
AP: There’s no correct pronunciation. I’ll use both at different times and in different ways.
BW: You’ve said before that the idea of “Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti” was a joke where the punchline got lost. How do you interact with the name Ariel Pink these days?
AP: The joke part wasn’t that my whole thing was shtick. It was a sort of fantasy land that was concocted, but it wasn’t a joke. I’ve always been extremely serious about the work, and I really did want to escape into a different universe, convey that to other people, and invite them to lose themselves in it.
But the joke part I was referring to had to do with my earliest interviews. Interviewers asked what kind of music I was into, and I would say “pop.” When I was saying “pop music,” I was saying it tongue-in-cheek, because the word “pop” wasn’t used in any kind of way in magazines at the time.
It’s way different now that it has a renewed definition, and “pop” has lost its actual meaning. It’s still around in one sense, to describe what’s popular out there, but The Strokes were not saying that they were listening to pop music when they were describing their influences. It was almost a knock – not even a thought for most musicians. The White Stripes, Interpol, music media, and Mojo magazines were not discussing things as “pop," - that was the last thing they wanted to think about. So I was saying I was into pop stuff as a cheeky way of saying something along the lines of "I’m an experimental musician and a pervert at the same time." I like things that are pop, and I meant it in a way that was used at one time for a specific kind of music, but was later understood as a genre of music.
So now all of a sudden, “pop” has a totally different connotation. Pop music can either mean “Rihanna” or it can also mean 80s radio music that was popular [back] then. A lot of my music taps into that 80s sound, which for me has nothing to do with the 80s. It has to do with my earliest memories, which just happen to be rooted in the 80s. And that’s what I’m always returning to in my process - my first experiences. My first experiences with music were otherworldly to me, and I constantly try to return to that.
That just happens to be the era that I grew up in – it’s not a retro excursion into a genre or a genre exercise. For me, I will always be going back to the earliest memory, and so it will be a muddled return to the very start of the 80s, and also a confluence of things that came before it and informed it, and not much happening after it. I want my experimental path that I’ve carved out for myself to take me sideways, and not really progress. It might sound cleaner from one album to the next and it might be recorded better, but it’s all about staying somewhere, and not about the progress. There are very few updates to the sound. It’s my own sideways development. That way, I can do something completely different and be on a different path, and I can stay somewhere against the tides of change where I don’t need to anticipate them, change with them, update the sounds, or get with the program fashion-wise. That’s not part of my plan. It just happens to be that the world got on my plan a little bit, or maybe it was a right time/right place zeitgeist kind of thing, and it got some sort of awareness and notoriety because of the medium of the internet, which re-invoked these old spirits that had been dead.
I think that those movements fall under my highfalutin, highly cerebral approach to music. It’s all very composer-like and professor-like. I don’t have much emotion about it, and I don’t really want to do anything or say anything [with it]. I don’t want to be a Bob Dylan; I just want to do my craft and not have it analyzed by everybody. I know it doesn’t seem like I mind talking about, but it is difficult talking about this. I’m talking about it to you because I have a feeling you might actually understand what I’m saying.
BW: I was going to ask about this very thing. There’s a whole line of questioning I could go into about your personal connections to Louisiana, L.A., and Mexico, your intersecting identities as American and Jewish, your time living abroad, and so on, but do you think that we overstate the importance of biography when considering our musicians and artists? Can I find all this in the music, and this type of background information is just an unnecessary distraction?
AP: No, I don’t think it’s an unnecessary distraction. I think it’s the fine print that comes with the artwork and the package. It’s a little bit of text, like a book, that comes with the art and music. It all contributes to this impression, and whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, I’m not going to say.
I definitely don’t know where to draw the line. I’m half for invention, misrepresenting myself, and trying to be a superman that has no history, like Ziggy Stardust. But then there’s the other side of me that has really never taken any care to invent anything for myself. There’s really nothing but the biography, which I’ve always been very aware of. I never gave too much thought to the construction of my image in that regard. I did a little bit in the beginning, when I took it for granted that I could make an impression on somebody, but now I feel the gnome behind the curtain cranking the projector and doing the marionettes has been exposed, and there’s no way for me to reconstruct or start over again – it’s part of the real thing now. I think of myself as Ariel Rosenberg, and I make a big deal about Ariel Pink not being an alter-ego. But then I also make a big deal about wanting to invent a fantasy world, which is mainly the job of the music, and some of the visuals.
Other than that, the stories of the people behind things enrich and ground things in a healthy way within the context of human activity and things that we value historically. There’s a reason for it, and it’s not just completely arbitrary. Not that these biographies are anything but constructions – they’re narratives that have their own arc, like a Greek mythological structure, and the prose is already pre-scripted. Some people are touched with a drive and genius that is unique. Their specialty, uniqueness, and novelty are things we treasure, and we appreciate these people and their creations.